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A Farewell to May: The Charm of Birds by Sir Edward Grey

May 29, 2014

I find that there is something rather sad about the fact that May is slipping away for another year. Northumberland 231

It is, I think, my favourite month. I relish the fresh green of the countryside, the sweep of bluebells under the trees and across open hillsides. The beech tree does two great bouts of magnificence in the course of a year, with its untainted green leaves in May and its beautiful brown and gold in Autumn.

And May is the month of full bird song, when the dawn chorus is at its height. Staying at Rock, in Northumberland, the dawn chorus has been quite stunning – as is the late evening singing of the birds.

I know that I am not alone in this feeling about the month of May.

During my visit to Barter Books in Alnwick, I found a book I had been searching for for quite a while. I had a copy many years ago and it was lost. I was pleased to get it again.

The book is The Charm of Birds by Viscount Grey of Fallodon. The Sir Edward Grey who, just a century ago, was the British Foreign Secretary at the 1914 outbreak of the Great War. If you have never read it I urge you to seek it out. Grey was a considerable bird watcher, in the sense that he appreciated them when out for a country walk.

His book is a hymn to all that is best in our country’s nature. You don’t have to be a birder to appreciate it. You just have to love our countryside. He devotes a whole chapter to May.Northumberland 007

But in May we are overwhelmed. New green is spreading everywhere… neither eye nor ear, nor outward nor inward ear of man is equal to it. Each of us can select for especial and particular enjoyment a few things: the tender green of young beech leaves; the scent of mass in whin; a glade of bluebells; a wide field of buttercups under the sun: but when we have done our best, we are yet oppressed by a feeling that we can but take in a small portion of the abundant beauty. There comes upon us also, not only a sense of abundance, but of haste; it is all passing; the leaves darken from day to day; luxuriance remains, but tenderness and delicacy are fleeting. It is only for a short time that new beech leaves are so soft that the wind stirs them without sound. In early spring we long to hurry the season; in May we would say to it, “stay! thou art fair.”Bluebells at Derwent Water 013

And it cannot be stayed…in later years, as the season approaches, experience and age qualify the confidence with apprehension lest clouds of war or civil strife, or some emergency of work, or declining health, or some other form of human ill may destroy the pleasure or even the sight of it: and when once again it has been enjoyed we have a sense of gratitude greater than in the days of confident and thoughtless youth.  Perhaps the memory of those days, having become part of our being, helps us in later life to enjoy each passing season. In every May, with the same beauty of sight and sound, “we do beget the golden time again.”

Despite incredible efforts of diplomacy, Sir Edward Grey could not stave off the Great War. His world changed for ever, though he continued to enjoy his experiences with birds and nature.

On the eve of that war he made his famous remark: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time“.

Sadly, I think they have never been re-lit since.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2014 5:56 pm

    Thank you for a wonderful article & pictures. The month of May is just the best time for renewal.

  2. May 29, 2014 6:35 pm

    I used to like May but the last several have been so miserable and cold, I’m starting to favour winter instead (and I used to hate winter but at least it’s drier, brighter and clearer). I was only thinking last night at work, when I looked out of the window, how much darker it is than winter due to all the tree cover being in full leaf. I normally look forward to the trees coming out. I do wish we could have some sun sometimes – it would really cheer things up a bit.

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